Region versus Province: from the intro to Lit

Lit: New Writing from the School of English, Newcastle University 

(I thought it might be worth posting an edited version of this intro, especially as it attempts to make a historical argument for the integrity of the North East as a literary region. (An argument, incidentally, echoed by Seamus Heaney when interviewed during his visit.) Also, even though it’s only a year old, events have already begun revising the teritory under discussion, so I’ve added a couple of paragraphs of update [these are the ones in square brackets]. It’s not the principle intention of posting this piece to promote the anthology, though it is a very fine anthology. Those whose interest is piqued, however, can find find details of how to buy it here.)

When I first moved to Newcastle in 1994, I took the train down from Elgin, in the North East of Scotland, and noticed two things: that the North East of England, from my perspective, seemed to be in the centre of these islands (I make no claims for my grasp of geography); and that it had the most thriving and longest-standing literary community I’d experienced outside these islands’ various capitals. Further acquaintance has persuaded me that both of these observations were truer than I realised.

There are still those who think literature functions at two poles, the capital and the province. Writers of national significance, it is assumed, gravitate towards the capitals, where the edge is presumed to be cutting. Those understood to be producing merely derivative, old-fashioned or local work, on the other hand, stay put. But for a place to be as magnetic as the North East has proven, drawing writers for decades and, now, increasingly, students of writing, implies there must be a cultural unit between such extremes.

This would be the region, a quasi-autonomous area which stands comparison in quality if not in scale with the nation. According to this argument, London is a region, as is Northern Ireland; Oxbridge and Liverpool-Manchester form curious dyadic regions; Scotland and Wales are composed of several — and the North East of England is the latest significant centre of literary activity to acquire this status.

One reason this may be the case is that everything that is happening now is built on extremely sure foundations. The work of Basil Bunting, Sid Chaplin, Tom Hadaway and Alan Plater established Tyneside as a significant site for regional literature. Because of their presence, Northern Arts (now ACE NE), in collaboration with Newcastle and Durham universities, invested in a supportive environment that led to new generations of writers developing and settling here. 

Firstly through the Northern Literary Fellowship (the oldest writers’ residency in the country), and latterly through setting up the pioneering writers’ agency New Writing North, the Arts Council has long recognised that this is a flagship region for literature. Newcastle University, initially through the Fellowship, and now through the founding of the Northern Writers’ Centre, has similarly displayed its strong commitment to the written arts. The long-term presence of a figure like Tony Harrison, and the prominence of David Almond and the late Julia Darling, are partly due to that investment.

[It’s regrettable to note that the Arts Council appear to be planning a step back from that close engagement with region, as administration for the north – a larger, vaguer concept – is to be consolidated in Manchester. As with similar centralising contractions in organisations like the British Council, an economic agenda appears to be turning back the clock on, in this case, decades of developing contacts and expertise.]

In the work of Sid Chaplin and its influence on contemporary writers we see how a region’s literary identity is first formed, and then developed to the point where it acquires national significance. The strong presence of contemporary women novelists such as Pat Barker, Kitty Fitzgerald and Debbie Taylor, has in recent years been augmented by the arrival of writers like Val MacDermid.

Tom Hadaway’s early influence on Live Theatre is just one benefit the area is continuing to reap dividends from. Playwrights like Lee Hall, Peter Straughan and Margaret Wilkinson, have all been nurtured here. In the work of Sean O’Brien and others, Newcastle has become a centre for the unlikely medium of verse drama, catching the attention of the RSC and the National Theatre.

The presence of Basil Bunting led not only to the setting up of the Northern Literary Fellowship, but was an instrumental factor in Tom and Connie Pickard starting up the Morden Tower — one of the prime if not primal sites for the Sixties’ explosion in poetry readings. One result is the region has filled with poets, including Anne Stevenson, Gillian Allnutt and Linda France.

The role of Newcastle University has been augmented by the development of a strong Creative Writing section, which has sought out its staff from writers across all the aforementioned areas — poetry, prose and drama. It has developed its own cultural agenda, breaking down the town-campus divide, promoting local authors, bringing in writers of international significance for readings and talks, launching new books by its writer-teachers (often to audiences in their hundreds — the region has a uniquely supportive environment in this respect).

Writers collaborate on performances both with each other, and with film-makers and musicians; there is an unusual amount of cross-fertilisation (novelists writing plays, poets writing novels); and each year a prestigious contemporary poet gives the Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures.

As one of the contributors to this anthology notes in her biographical note, the MA at Newcastle has been in existence since 2000. In that period Creative Writing at Newcastle University has grown, incorporating not only undergraduate but Postgraduate Certificate, MLitt and PhD teaching. Our graduates go on to teach, organise events, and, most importantly, publish.

We are all contemplating the opportunities offered by the Northern Writers’ Centre, a dedicated new build on campus open to the public, which will literally cement the relationships we have been attempting to foster between the academic and the literary community of the North East, between new and established writers, and between the School of English and New Writing North.

[History, as this introduction goes on to examine, has an inbuilt reluctance to be predictable, and the Northern Writers’ Centre, due to the recession’s bite on all such necessary luxuries, is no more. So in its place we have set up the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts, a research grouping, an events organiser, a publisher, a gallery, an archive and an instrument for outreach into the community through short courses and other teaching. It’s had a spectacular first season, with audiences in their hundreds packing out venues to hear Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy. But events continue to range from such heady spectaculars to the steadier work of supporting local authors and initiatives.]

 …Transformation, in its most benign aspect, is the proper goal of education, and to achieve it, an institution itself must also be subject to transformation, development, reform. There is a tipping point for organisations as for regions, and we feel this anthology makes a modest, emphatic contribution towards Creative Writing at Newcastle reaching that point.

Over the last eight years we have seen writers of real ability emerge across all three of the strands we teach — poetry, fiction and scriptwriting. The push up the rungs of the ladder that all such courses promise has long been realised here: poets have been shortlisted for national prizes; novelists have found agents and publishers; playwrights have been offered read-through, feedback and performance…

One of the common themes recurring throughout this anthology is how we cope with the unexpected, be it a sudden revelation or simply the unlikely way things have turned out. Illnesses, relationships, ageing, breakdowns, bereavements, even imprisonment, are all explored: all the seismic shifts that take us away from what we know of ourselves or those most close to us, and set us down in the same place, but as though we’ve never seen it before.

This type of intense transformation (though not as yet imprisonment!) is essentially what writers in North East — and Creative Writing at Newcastle University — have been living through. So it turns out that, in this as in much else, our students are instructing their tutors. It is our hope that, in doing so, they will also engage and enlighten you, their newest reader.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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